Thursday 17 January 2019

Political Notebook: Congratulations Mary Lou, but you are no Constance Markievicz


Markievicz Memorial: Mary Lou McDonald at Glasnevin Cemetery last week. Photo: Doug O’Connor
Markievicz Memorial: Mary Lou McDonald at Glasnevin Cemetery last week. Photo: Doug O’Connor
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

It would be remiss not to congratulate Mary Lou McDonald on her election as President of Sinn Fein, as somebody who had twice predicted that this day would not come. Those predictions were based on statements by Gerry Adams that he would lead Sinn Fein into the next election. Within months of his most recent absolute declaration, Adams then announced his intention to step down in advance of that election. The suddenness of his decision has always sat a little curiously with me. Yes, he has been Sinn Fein leader since 1983, but when the announcement came it was out of the blue. The wonder remains, why is it now that Adams has chosen to step down, if not away, and is there more to his decision than meets the eye?

The simple answer may be political expediency, that he has taken the Sinn Fein project as far as he can and that McDonald may take it further. But that is also the lazy assessment and one that is not necessarily true. She may lose the interest of as many Sinn Fein supporters, mostly angry young men, as she will gain and will gain only by moving Sinn Fein to the centre ground, which is easier said than done.

Those angry young men, devoid of a proper understanding of history, may lose interest in a party at least outwardly shorn of its disturbing mix of celebrity and violence.

McDonald is wished well in her future endeavours, but she will need good fortune, and time.

However, I am inclined to agree with the former SDLP deputy leader, the searing Seamus Mallon, that it will take at least another 10 years of "stroking" and "pleasing everybody" before Sinn Fein becomes somewhat normalised, and even then…


As Leo Varadkar pointed out last week, during the course of a statement in which he appeared, though did not fully rule out a change to Fine Gael policy against coalition with Sinn Fein, McDonald becomes the third woman to lead a political party in Ireland, the others being Mary Harney and Joan Burton, obviously.

In a speech to commemorate Constance Markievicz and 100 Years of Women's Suffrage last week, Fianna Fail leader, Micheal Martin reminded us to look at the coverage of debates at the time of the Treaty to find account after account dismissing republican women in deeply misogynistic terms.

"I have no doubt that this created an atmosphere in which there were so many steps backwards in the following decades. It is a deep shame that it took a further 60 years before another woman became a member of Cabinet," he said. Indeed.


In this regard, one need look no further than the national poet, WB Yeats, particularly his 'all has changed, changed utterly' poem Easter 1916, in which he refers to Markievicz, Her nights in argument, Until her voice grew shrill. This was not the worst example of an outward misogyny at the time, documented by the historian Diarmaid Ferriter among others, of a kind that some would say is not latent but still evident if not rampant. With that in mind, then, I would venture that I am reminded of Senator Lloyd Bentsen's put down of Dan Quayle, after a fashion: Mary Lou, you are no Constance Markievicz.

I do not think, however, that Seamus Mallon, almost 82, could be accused of misogyny when he said last week that he did not know enough about Mary Lou McDonald, but that she was personable, "looks good on television" and speaks well, as that can and has also been said of Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin; or, indeed, in relation to her deputy, Michelle O'Neill, of whom Mallon said: "The lady up here will do what she's told. She will say what is written for her. That's her role; nothing more to her role than that." Is that what Arlene Foster might call "Blonde"?


The Independents for Change TD, Clare Daly, in the Dail last week, tackled the Taoiseach about the state of maternity services in Ireland, which was an interesting debate, I suppose, in the context of the abortion referendum. Sometimes there are facts before us which can stun when laid out.

"There is something very wrong in our health service," Daly said. "There were 27 maternal deaths between 2011 and 2013 but only three inquests. The culture of deny and defend has to end." What a shocking statistic: 27 maternal deaths in such a short period.

There is merit to her argument for a mandatory inquest (assuming a family wants one) as opposed to a review in such cases, but it is difficult to agree with one of her conclusions: "I wonder whether we would be waiting this long if men were dying."

Recently, I reported on CSO statistics which revealed that in the second quarter last year there were 115 deaths by suicide of which 94 were men. I am sure Clare Daly would be concerned as to the reasons behind this statistic as men would be that 27 of their mothers, sisters and daughters have died in maternity care between 2011 and 2013.


In the abortion referendum great store is being placed in the #hometovote campaign which was credited with the success of the same sex marriage referendum, the view being that the youth vote will see the referendum passed. That may be so, although I would argue that the grey vote was just as influential in the introduction of same sex marriage.

What then are we to make of a recent publication by the gold standard measure in electoral behaviour in the UK, the British Election Study, which has disabused us of the notion that it was the youth vote which gave rise to Labour's unexpectedly strong performance in the 2017 election?

The theory that Jeremy Corbyn had enthused previously disengaged young voters has been so accepted that the Oxford English Dictionary even declared "youthquake" - a political awakening among millennial voters - its word of the year.

Not so, according to the British Election Study, whose research has found youthquake to be a myth. Turnout in the UK election did go up, but only by 2.5pc. The upshot is that Labour was more popular among young than old voters, and its share of the youth vote did increase.

But winning the support of more young people who vote is not the same as a surge in youth turnout. It is also worth pointing out that Labour's popularity increased among all ages, except those over 70.


While the #hometovote movement may, or not, see the abortion referendum over the line, there is little or no evidence that millennials will greatly influence the next election here.

Everything we know about turnout suggests that voting is "sticky" - most people who vote in one election will vote at subsequent elections, and most who abstain will continue to abstain. That's the youth of today for you, as my father might say. Whatever about referendums, they don't vote in great numbers in general elections.

In other words, Mary Lou McDonald has her work cut out for her. But she is not alone. So too has Leo Varadkar, who would be foolish to rely on millennials charmed by colourful socks (within scuffed shoes) and his liberal credentials to see him over the line next time.

Sunday Independent

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